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Tech incubator grows an Agrivolution at Avery Point

By Lee Howard

Publication: The Day

Published March 08. 2014 4:00AM
Dana Jensen/The Day
Richard Fu, left, president of the hydroponic firm Agrivolution, shows Rep. Joe Courtney his lab located in the Community & Professional Building Friday on the UConn Avery Point campus in Groton. The trays are full of buttercrunch lettuce.
Avery Point campus acts as a hothouse for farming business

Groton - When Richard Fu named his startup company Agrivolution, he wasn't kidding.

As Fu outlined Friday during a meeting at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point with U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, he is advocating nothing less than a revolution in the way Connecticut does the business of agriculture.

Fu, joined by several other advocates of Connecticut agriculture, said after a tour of his hydroponic-growing facilities at Avery Point that the time is right for the state to embrace new technologies that promote year-round greenhouse crop production.

"I look at this as an unbelievable economic opportunity, and it's so simple," said Kevin Sullivan of Chestnut Hill Nursery in Stafford.

Sullivan, a member of the Governor's Council for Agriculture, said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has been very supportive of moving Connecticut farming in innovative directions. Among the ideas being bandied about: an agricultural innovation center in Connecticut to test out the best growing conditions for various crops.

"Agriculture has real innovation needs today," said Joe Geremia of Geremia Greenhouse in Wallingford. "We're under tremendous pressure."

Geremia said Connecticut and much of the country are two to three decades behind other parts of the world in moving toward indoor farming. The Netherlands, a leader in indoor farming that as a country contains about three times the land mass of the state, currently produces about 20 times the agricultural products that Connecticut claims, according to figures provided by Fu.

And Connecticut agriculture has been slipping in importance, according to Geremia. While residents purchased 90 percent of their tomatoes from in-state in 1999, that number is now in the 60 percent range, he said, and the state overall produces less than 2 percent of the food its residents consume.

Agricultural advocates said buying locally produced food will be better for people's health and healthier for a range of associated businesses. The price of food also likely will come down because of lower costs for transportation and the ability to grow food on a large scale in controlled environments that can be optimized for production.

"This is something that can change Connecticut," Sullivan said. "It helps the whole economy."

Fu's Agrivolution startup that is housed in a few hundred square feet of Technology Incubation Program space at Avery Point is a miniature version of what Geremia and Sullivan would like to see on a much larger scale.

Inside the demonstration space, several rows of vegetables are growing, including basil and the ice plant, a South African succulent that Fu said is becoming popular in Japan and other parts of the world. Fu showed Courtney how he can control the temperature and lighting inside the room to test under which conditions each of the vegetables grows best.

Fu said Agrivolution, besides hoping to open up a hydroponic vegetable operation in the next year, expects to make money by distributing special indoor-farming lights manufactured in Japan as well as by cashing in on digital technologies that allow the company to monitor conditions including heat, humidity and nutrients.

The Achilles heel of indoor agriculture in Connecticut, said Fu, is the cost to heat buildings, but he is hoping to partner with other companies, including fuel cell manufacturers that generate heat during their manufacturing processes, to help mitigate the costs.

"I thank you for what you are doing," Courtney said. "It's exactly what the country needs right now."

Fu said the idea of controlled-environment agriculture fits perfectly with the grow-local movement and could move Connecticut - years ago known as "the provision state" - back in the business of producing its own food.

The problem, said Fu, is that it has been difficult to attract capital investments for what is perceived as an agricultural business. The fact that, as Courtney said, Connecticut is perceived as having "amusement parks with cow flops" rather than dairy farms adds to the political difficulty of attracting federal funds to agriculture in the Northeast.

For Fu, the challenge is changing the perception.

"Technology really makes a difference," he said.

l.howard@theday.com

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